By Nancy Thompson
The historical Buddha left behind his family — parents, wife, and infant son — when he snuck out of his palatial home to look for the causes of and liberation from suffering. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t talk much about family except metaphorically: Regard all beings as a mother regards her only child.
The Buddha taught to anyone who wanted his teachings, but he intended them mainly for monastics. (His son, Rahula, became a monk and the aunt who raised him after his mother’s early death was among the first nuns.)
While biological family isn’t seen as important, the community, or sangha, is so vital that it one of the three gems in which Buddhists take refuge — Buddha, dharma, sangha. Thich Nhat Hahn describes sangha as “the community that lives in harmony and awareness,” in one version of the refuge vow. That description is more of an aspiration that a statement of reality, as anyone who’s been part of a community knows. Interactions with people, even those related to us by blood or choice, can create friction.
That’s not seen as a problem, however. In fact, when the Indian sage Atisha went to Tibet to teach, he was concerned because he had heard that the Tibetans were so pleasant and easy to get along with that he might become complacent and stop working on himself. To guarantee that wouldn’t happen, he brought along the most annoying person he could find — an irritable Begali tea boy.
People who we find irritating or annoying show us where we’re stuck, where we’re clinging to ego or to a solid sense of self. When you think, “How could he do that to me?” you’ve created two solid, very separate selves. You’re not seeing the common humanity — and confusion — that colors relationships. You’re assigned praise or blame based on your perceptions of the situation without knowing all of the causes or conditions that created it. And you’re closely off your options for responding compassionately.
Families can be particularly good at pointing up old habits, places where we’re stuck. They’re also places where we can practice extending unconditional kindness — I love you no matter what — and boundless compassion. Relationships are where we test the truth of the realizations we’ve had in study or meditation practice.
I recently attended a weekend retreat on relational mindfulness. Half of each day was spent in silent, internal mediation practice, and half in interactive practice: feeling out the boundaries of our physical comfort zones, speaking briefly, listening. It was an intense experience to notice how quick we are to judge ourselves and others, to make assumptions, to fall back on habits and conventions without awareness of how we really feel.
It’s not realistic to expect to live always in harmony. That likely means covering over incidents or emotions that might disrupt that. But we can use our awareness to live with less stress and strife, seeing what is our projections, deciding how we want to respond to slights., cultivating kindness rather than staking out status.